Current Affairs Opinion

A tribute to 100 years of women gaining full Oxford degrees

In 1877 Annie Mary Anne Henley Rogers became the first woman to gain honours in a University examination intended to be the equivalent to that taken by men for a degree, achieving first class honours in Latin and Greek. Yet it would be 43 years before she could both matriculate and graduate on the 26th October 1920.

A milestone in its history, 2020 marks one hundred years since the University of Oxford allowed women to become eligible for admission as full members of the University and to take degrees. Yet this landmark falls within a broader narrative of progress and regression in regard to women’s place within the University. 

In Oxford alumnus Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, during the protagonist’s time at Oxford University (set in the 1920s, the decade following women gaining the right to complete degrees) visiting women at the university are described as ‘intruders’ and perpetrators of the ‘grossest disturbance’.

This sense of the university as a ‘masculine space’ pervaded arguments regarding women’s place in the university, reflected in the anxiety of the ‘invasion of the Amazons’ when women were first admitted to the university.

The 1927 Limitation Statute stated that within the five women’s societies (they were not yet granted the status of colleges) the body of students was not to exceed 840. This was only one sixth of the student body. It was a blatant attempt to protect the traditionally masculine space of the university by limiting the female student body.

Progress thereon was gradual. By 1963 women represented on average 25% of the university population in Britain whereas in Oxford they made up only 15%. The student press of the day referred to this as an example of a ‘sexual apartheid’ at the University.

It was not until 1959 that women’s colleges were granted full collegiate status and only in 1961 did the Oxford Union vote to admit women to the full debating cycle. Offering congratulations to Professor Dorothy Hodgkin on her Nobel Prize in 1964, John Vaizey reflected that there were only three men’s colleges in Oxford which would allow her in as a guest at dinner.

Real change, in keeping with the wider cultural shifts of society as a whole, could be detected in the University from the 1970s onwards. In 1974, Brasenose, Jesus, Wadham, Hertford and St Catherine’s became the first previously all- male Colleges to admit women. Oriel admitted women in 1985, becoming the last previously all-male college to do so.

In addition, in 1977 the women’s colleges were included in the cycle to elect the University’s most senior officers, the Proctors. Siobhan Brzezina, an honorary Lieutenant Colonel during time spent working in the Ministry of Defence and a former member of the Treasury Solicitor’s was an undergraduate student of Geography at the then all female St Hilda’s College from 1980- 83.

During her time at the University she reflected that in fact ‘a woman’s College was a very good place to be as women were not a new or novel minority and as such there was no antagonism or discrimination within St Hilda’s as could be found at the time in some traditionally all- male Colleges’.

That being said, she also is aware of an ‘enormous’ change in the culture of the University between her time and the present day. ‘There is arguably therefore no longer the same need for women-only colleges as there was previously and there is clearly progress to be seen in the fact that many women are now the head of their Colleges and there are significantly more female fellows and tutors than in my time.’  

In 2015, with the appointment of the first woman vice- chancellor of the University, Professor Louise Richardson, a definite sense of progress was solidified. In 2017 for the first time Oxford University offered more undergraduate places to British women than men; 1070 female UK applicants in comparison to 1025 men.

Current female members of the University can attest to the enhanced role of women. Anisha Faruk, President of the Oxford Student Union, sits on committees alongside senior academics and staff, making the case for students, ‘I often have to disagree… it can be a bit pressurised but that doesn’t stop me from speaking up’.

Similarly, Professor Carol Harrison is the first lay person and woman to be appointed to the Senior Christ Church Professorship, the Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity. Sarah Tress, a Rhodes Scholar and first year master’s student, follows in the footsteps of prominent individuals such as Edwin Hubble and Bill Clinton. 

To reflect upon the centenary since women became eligible to complete degrees alongside men means to reflect on a broader narrative of the progression of women’s position within the University.

Furthermore, not only does this historic centenary call for a reflection, but an appreciation that progress remains paramount. As Siobhan Brzezina recognises ‘although since my time, Oxford is clearly much more egalitarian, yet one must not be complacent’. For instance, ‘are females numerically over-represented in more poorly remunerated support staff roles?’. She elicits questions as to how fairly they are treated in light of the Student Union’s calculation that the ‘living’ wage of the scouts leaves them about £25 a week for food.

Thus, this significant centenary during women’s history month marks an opportunity to reflect on the dramatic change to the position of women within Oxford University (institutionally and culturally). It also reminds us to keep pushing for the university to reach a stage focusing on our common humanity, rather than seeing women as other compared to our male counterparts.